Are dispatchers first responders?

The feds do not recognize 911 dispatchers as first responders, and that can have important consequences for all responders


By Melissa Mann

People do not dial typically 911 when they win the lottery. The community dials 911 when they are in desperate need of help.

Children are taught from a very young age to dial 911 when they are hurt, scared and need help. They are taught that when they dial 911, a police officer or firefighter will come to their aid as quickly as they can. When adults dial 911 they assume there is going to be a voice on the line who will render help when it is needed the most.

Brunswick County Dispatcher and Chief of Communications Joy Seward man's the desk in her office in Lawrenceville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Brunswick County Dispatcher and Chief of Communications Joy Seward man's the desk in her office in Lawrenceville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The dispatcher who answers the call is ready to help a caller administer CPR, listen to hysterical screaming, calm a crying child, reason with a suicidal subject or deliver a baby.

There is no clerical or administrative position in the public safety industry that must endure this level of stress while remaining calm and meticulously administering their duties. However, under the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, dispatchers are classified as just that: clerical.

Police, fire and EMS dispatchers are essentially the very first contact in an emergent situation. They must triage the call, gather pertinent information and render the necessary aid.

Yet this is classification issue is more than simply a matter of bruised egos or an often overlooked sector of emergency response feeling … well, overlooked. This classification has real ramifications.

Why it matters
Chela Cottrell, a dispatcher with Citrus Heights (Calif.) Police Department, said the biggest benefit from this reclassification could potentially be reflected in the ability to clearly define the job standards of a public safety telecommunicator among agencies across the board.

A big concern to most communication center administrators and dispatch personnel is the upcoming conversion to NextGen911, which will include 911 caller text and video streaming communication abilities. Standardized training and potential federal grant funds for upgrades is only available with the new classification as safety personnel.

Having the resources for the best training and equipped call taker is just as important to the person placing the 911 call as it is to the police, fire or EMS responders who are dispatched.

The current classification of 911 professionals under Standard Occupational Classification is reflected as police, fire and ambulance dispatchers under a category of Office and Administrative Support Occupations. With this inaccurate definition in mind, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials has taken on the task of recommending to the Office of Management and Budget that public safety telecommunicator be folded into the protective service category, the same classification as police officers and firefighters.

OMB rejected APCO's first reclassification request seemingly due to a lack of complete understanding as to what the duties of a dispatcher include. APCO appealed the decision and held an educational webinar on the reclassification of public safety telecommunicators as part of protective occupations.

Responder by any other name
The webinar included an invitation to participants to speak out to federal officials and express their dismay with the current classification of 911 dispatchers as an office and administrative support occupation. 

The definition of a first responder, according the Merriam-Webster, is, "Among those responsible for responding immediately to the scene of an accident or emergency to provide assistance." This assistance is specifically what an emergency dispatcher is trained to do, although not physically at the scene.

Along with the training and administration of first responder duties comes vicarious PTSD. Studies have demonstrated that first responders do not need to be physically on scene to develop this disorder.

Dispatchers answer multiple traumatic calls and handle stressful radio incidents without decompression time to process the associated feelings and somatic responses. This traumatic exposure alone sets the job of a public safety dispatcher apart from any clerical or administrative occupation.

Classification into the appropriate occupational category is merely a paperwork change within the OMB.

"Dispatchers are not asking to be treated as a police officer or firefighter," Cottrell said, "We are simply asking to be recognized for what our profession is truly about."

For further information or to share comments in support of public safety telecommunication reclassification, go to the APCO Take Action page.

About the author
Melissa Mann recently retired from the field of law enforcement. Her experience spanned 18 years, which included assignments in corrections, community policing, dispatch communications, and search and rescue. Melissa holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and master's degree in psychology with emphasis in studies on the psychological process of law enforcement officers. She holds a deep passion for researching and writing about the lifestyle of police and corrections work and the far-reaching psychological effects on the officer and their world.

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